MEGATREND: Screen Time

Digital Eye Strain Abounds, But Awareness Lags Despite Treatment Options

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As recently as a decade ago, a mention of digital eye strain (DES) would have most people scratching their heads. Today it’s ubiquitous, a condition of modern life. From toddlers to millennials to seniors, from city dwellers to shepherds in remote mountain villages, no one is immune from DES and its effects, which include dry, irritated eyes, blurred vision and assorted aches and pains. More than half of American adults suffer adverse effects from overexposure to screens, according to The Vision Council, which coined the term digital eye strain.

The sharp rise in DES is directly correlated to the proliferation of smartphones, computers, e-readers and other digital devices and the increasing amounts of time we spend looking at our screens. Just how much time do we spend on screens? Two recent studies measured respondents’ screen time, and the statistics are sobering.

More than 80 percent of adults report using digital devices for over two hours per day, and nearly 67 percent say they use two or more devices simultaneously, according to the July, 2018 VisionWatch survey, a 17-year running study of the U.S. ophthalmic market conducted by The Vision Council. Moreover, close to 55 percent of respondents said they look at some type of screen in the first hour they’re awake; and nearly 80 percent said they use digital devices in the hour just before going to sleep.

A new survey conducted by Jobson Research and WebMD reveals how much time we spend using a particular device. Among desktop or laptop computer users, 36.2 percent of respondents said they use it for two to five hours a day; 21.8 percent said they use it for more than five hours a day.

Among smartphone users, 23.6 percent said they spend between two to five hours a day on the device, and 10.6 percent said they use it for more than five hours a day.

Among tablet and e-reader users, 37.7 percent said they use the device for one to two hours a day, and 21 percent use it for two to five hours a day.

Such prolonged screen use invariably comes at a cost. According to the VisionWatch survey, nearly six out of 10 American adults report digital eye strain symptoms, including:

1. Neck/shoulder pain (35 percent)
2. Eye strain (32.4 percent)
3. Blurred vision (27.9 percent)
4. Headaches (27.7 percent)
5. Dry eyes (27.2 percent)
  
Although the Jobson/WebMD survey sample skewed older and more female than the actual U.S. population, respondents also reported significant effects from prolonged screen use.

Large numbers of children are also suffering from DES, although it impacts them differently than adults. Parents surveyed by VisionWatch reported that parents indicated their children’s favorite activities, besides playing outside, are playing on a digital device (23.1 percent) and watching TV (20.1 percent).

Those parents reporting symptoms related to digital eye strain said their children experience the following after two or more hours of screen time:
  
• Reduced attention span (15.2 percent)
• Irritability (13.5 percent)
• Poor behavior (13.3 percent)
• Eye strain, dry or irritated eyes (9.1 percent)
• Headaches (8.8 percent)
• Neck/shoulder pain (5 percent)

As DES has become better understood, and its symptoms have become more widely recognized, many eyecare professionals now regard it as an ocular health issue. They are advising patients on how to safely use their digital devices and are prescribing a wide range of products and treatments that are now available, including spectacle and contact lenses designed for mid-distance use and long screen sessions.

Some digital device manufacturers have also come up with their own solutions for DES. For example, Apple recently introduced a feature for its iOS 12 operating system called Screen Time that lets users of iPhones and iPads know how much time they and their children spend on apps and websites. The Screen Time data allows them to make more informed decisions about how the devices are being used, and set limits if they’d like to, according to Apple.

However, consumer awareness of DES and how to combat it remains low. The VisionWatch survey revealed that nearly 49 percent of American adults say they don’t know what digital eye strain is, and nearly 35 percent aren’t concerned about the impact of digital device usage on their eyes.

Moreover, one in four American adults told VisionWatch they are “not concerned” about the impact of digital devices on their children’s developing eyes, despite the fact that 70 percent of them said their children are exposed to two or more hours of screen time per day.

The Vision Council has devoted considerable resources to a campaign to raise consumer awareness of digital eye strain. In 2018, the organization sponsored the official health lounge at South by Southwest (SXSW) titled The T-Eye-me Out Lounge: Give Your Eyes a Break with The Vision Council. The lounge focused on educating conference-goers and attending media about digital eye strain, its reported symptoms and the lens solutions available. The Vision Council also capitalized on Healthy Vision Month executing various media-centered initiatives throughout May. (See related story, page 30)

Professional groups such as the American Optometric Association also draw attention to DES, and offer resources to help their members learn about the condition and educate patients. Despite these efforts, some eyecare professionals don’t talk with patients about DES. The Jobson/WebMD survey found that of the 71.2 percent of respondents who had an eye examination within the past year, roughly half said that eye/vision issues related to digital device use were not discussed during the eye exam.

Justin Bazan, OD, who serves as medical adviser to The Vision Council, has emerged as a leading voice for DES awareness and for teaching consumers how to combat its effects. “Based on my experience and research, the light emitted from screens may be linked to issues with sleep, not to mention recurrent headaches, issues seeing content on a screen, and red, itchy and dry eyes,” said Dr. Bazan.

“Regardless of whether my patients are experiencing these problems associated with prolonged digital device usage, it’s important for individuals to make their eye health—especially as it relates to digital eye strain—a priority,” said Dr. Bazan. “Our eyes weren’t designed to look at digital devices, let alone as much as we all do in this era. So, it’s key to be proactive about mitigating the effects of digital devices on our eyes.”